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Delve Deeper


Forget the labels: What does it really mean to work across a system?

3 January

The Delvers have recently been supporting lots of public sector organisations to develop a new kind of leadership. Leadership that’s more distributed, where your role in your own organisation is less relevant, and as an individual, you need to collaborate with other leaders from other organisations so that as a whole you can deliver better health and care outcomes for the citizens in your community.

It’s an ambitious move and many of the leaders we work with feel like mythical creatures, not really sure of how to operate. Who are you without your role, status or authority? For example, how can you make an impact through conversation when nobody cares that you are a Finance Director?

We do witness first hand some amazing community transformations achieved by groups of people working together to improve health and social care outcomes for the residents in their area. People ‘thinking outside the box’ to get work done.  But here in lies a very significant problem which affects the sustainability of this new way of working, so eloquently described by Malcolm Gladwell in What the Dog Saw.


‘If everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing’

The box in question is the way our organisations are structured, particularly within Councils and the NHS.  In fact, most modern organisations are built on a basic blueprint that peaked in the Industrial age and operate on a principle called ‘predict and control’.[1] They seek to achieve stability and success through up-front planning and centralised control.  While this way worked out okay in the past, in today’s volatile and complex world where to achieve great things we need to work very differently, organisations are simply not adaptable enough.

What this looks like for our well-intentioned collaborative leaders is this: They attend meetings with other leaders from other organisations, they have some inspiring conversations of how to get things done, they might even scrap a traditional agenda in favour of a novel meeting technique and they start to see what life could be like when organisational boundaries don’t exist. But here’s the thing; while some leaders truly get out of the box to engage, others may begrudgingly stick one leg out in an effort to seem willing, because the reality is that after this meeting has finished, they have to return to their organisations, meet their targets, and follow all of the rules.

Trying to bolt on modern and novel techniques and ways of working is causing a major paradigm clash because it is always going to conflict with the other systems that exist around it.  A great new idea will quickly be destroyed by corporate anti-bodies that reject anything that doesn’t fit with its current mental model.

In the meantime, in a world where the box is not quite ready to be upgraded, how can we support those leaders who are trying to work in an organisationally agnostic way?


1.Co-Create a Well-Defined Sense of Purpose

Interestingly, this isn’t about being creative. As Brian J Robertson, author of Holocracy describes, a sense of purpose is more like detective work than creative work, it is already there waiting to be discovered.  So ask yourself, ‘why does the world need this?’  Or, ‘with all of our existing resources, capability, talent and current context, what is the greatest potential that can be delivered?’  If you can create a shared sense of purpose and compelling narrative that wins hearts and minds, collaboration will naturally flourish.

2. Start Somewhere

It is no longer the CEO’s job to be responsible for everyone else’s problems, but senior managers do need to be saying ‘you have the responsibility and accountability to make improvements’. However, don’t wait around if permission isn’t forthcoming and you don’t have a fully developed plan, it’s within your gift to make things happen that will impact on your shared sense of purpose.  If you’re waiting for the perfect conditions to be in place, you’ll never start venturing into new possibilities.

3. Forget the labels

Let’s not get hung up on the titles of systems leadership or collaborative leadership.  Trying to define it is challenging and some of the leaders we work with struggle to define the system itself.  When we don’t over-complicate it, it simply evolves into people making things happen, being a catalyst for change and being proactive with a clear shared goal in mind.  Build relationships based on deep listening and trust to enable yourself and others to step ahead collectively.

4. Show Governance some Respect

When done well, governance can help to distribute authority and clarify expectations. Governance is about how we work. Forget job descriptions, think more along the lines of how we will make decisions? What do I expect of others? What policies or constraints will we honour when we work together?


Delve have an inspirational new leadership programme dedicated to developing leaders for the new world.  To find out more, check out www.delveod.co.uk/what-we-do/leadership/ and get in touch.


[1] Holocracy by Brian J Robertson

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